Don't bite the hand that fixes you!

Don’t bite the hand that fixes you!

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed by some of the pupils at St Peters School in Henfield. Some very thoughtful and insightful questions were asked which did put me on the spot somewhat! There is one question which I am often asked once people know my profession: what’s the worst bite that you have ever had? The posing of this query is normally followed by a look of slightly sadistic expectation in the hope of a story of pain, blood, hospital visits, lost limbs and general mayhem. As you read this, you may have (involuntarily) such an expression on your face now! My own answer to this question is somewhat disappointing in terms of the above criteria, although there was certainly pain and a significant amount of blood involved. The perpetrator was a young moggy who managed to turn and sink his teeth into my exposed wrist, nicking a blood vessel in the process. A little blood does go a long way, but the scene afterwards resembled something from a horror movie. I did get my own back on the cat in question by completing the castration procedure that he was in for later on!

As part of the job of being a veterinary surgeon, we often find ourselves in a situation where, to put it democratically, we have to deal with a pet who does not want to be dealt with. Some of these situations can be “challenging”, so I thought it might be interesting to give you some example scenarios:

The first timer:

In order for an owner or a veterinary surgeon to know that a particular pet might consider using his or her teeth for something other than smiling it has to attempt to, or succeed in biting someone! Unfortunately it is often at the veterinary surgery where a pet finds themselves in a new environment where a complete stranger decides to start poking around with them, opening their mouths and generally encroaching on their personal space. It’s not surprising that some pets take exception to this. From the veterinary surgeon’s perspective, the old adage of “once bitten twice shy” definitely applies and so with every pet we have to make a judgement on whether their posture or body language of the pet indicates that they may be inclined to bite or scratch. Sometimes we get caught out with a bit of a nip, and there have also been times when I have felt incredibly stupid as I perform a “speedy hand withdrawal” out of reach of a pet as if I have just put my digit in a plug socket, only to find that the patient was just turning to give me a friendly lick! Most pets do give some warning if they are considering an act of minor violence, but there are a few who keep it under their hats - which leads me to the next category…

The unpredictable:

Hopefully another vet has already taken one for the team and there is prior knowledge that the individual in question has “form” - the unpredictable first timer is normally a successful unpredictable first timer! These pets normally sit calmly, weighing up their options until they come to the snap decision that enough is enough! There is normally no warning growl or grumble – the most you may be lucky enough to get as a “receiver” is a certain look in the eye. Being on high alert with a known “unpredictable” has often lead me to many an unnecessary “speedy hand withdrawal”… 

The blissfully unaware:

The other main factor which influences a veterinary surgeon’s comfort level when faced with a potentially grumpy pet is how confident we are with the person who is restraining it. Some well meaning owners come breezing into the consulting room holding the very tip of their dog’s lead between thumb and forefinger, then stand back with one hand on their hip at a jaunty angle and expect the vet to crack on with the examination. One does feel vulnerable examining the hind limb of a painful lame dog when no one is holding its head! It’s easy to forget that while a pet may not show any signs of aggression at home, pain, illness, discomfort or even just being in a strange place can easily precipitate this. 

The in-denial:

Quite frequently we are presented with a pet which is doing it’s very best to warn in no uncertain terms – “do not touch me, if you do, I will try and bite you!” Despite this, some owners are often to be heard saying words to the effect of, “there’s no need to muzzle him, I’m sure he’ll be fine”, or “she just makes a lot of noise, but she’s never bitten anyone before”. As the person going into the potential “danger zone” I hope you’ll appreciate that it’s much better to be safe than sorry. Putting a muzzle on a pet isn’t a personal insult it just ensures our safety and gives us the confidence to undertake a more thorough examination. 

The overprotective:

Every now and then we come across the lovely client who goes the complete opposite and insists on muzzling their 17 year old toothless, blind cat – “just in case”! While I am very touched by their concern for my safety, there is the rare situation where I’ll say, “I’m sure there’s no need for that today” – this is probably followed by me sustaining an injury as you should always take a pet owner’s word for it!

So, if your pet does have a tendency to be on the ill-tempered side when he or she is at the veterinary surgery, please do not feel uncomfortable. It is not a slight on their home environment or training and the vast majority are no problem when they are back in the comfort zone. However, if you know that your pet is that way inclined, we would always appreciate prior warning and please do not take offence if a muzzle or similar is suggested – to be on the safe side!